I hope you have had a chance to read Studio on the Street. I wanted to follow it up with a sort of tour de force post about activist craft projects. While there have been scattered articles here and there in craft publications (a recent one about Frau Fiber in Fiber Arts) I wanted to really give some background and history about this type of practice. While it was nice for American Craft to give some pages to exploring an interactive project, I wanted to give some props to some original [craft activist] gangstas.
The Second (but real) Introduction
Craft certainly has the power to inspire social cohesion through its production and use, but in a climate of post-modern studio production, craft can also use post-modern conceptual strategies to create meaning instead of commodity. In application these strategies do not always resemble traditional handwork. Instead they transcend object making to become activities that harness craft’s historic connection to community, hand skills, and social consciousness, all things that I believe to be at the heart of our changing culture. In this new type of practice – that centers on altruistic contributions to culture – the division of fine art and craft ceases to be of importance, as the importance is instead shifted towards an active/ activist practice of engagement.
In the past craftivism has been defined by the use of craft as a type of dissent to corporate capitalism; suggesting that the act of creating functional goods instead of purchasing them is, in itself, an act of political dissent. While passive resistance to corporate capitalism through craft is part of the ethical appeal of craft to many, it is not a new type of activity; rather it is simply the resurgence of the 19th century argument for craft in response to industrial production– primarily by young makers associated with indie craft circles (this is a good thing). With this resurgent attitude finding a new buzz word label, I am still left feeling that the combined practice of craft and activism (craftivism) has the potential to describe a much more robust and diverse set of practices. This being the case I suggest a supplemental definition for craftivism: using craft skills and ethos to directly engage in creating culturally enriching experiences. This type of practice is rapidly gaining momentum, a trend that this post will discuss through case studies.
Within the art world this type of practice has already become part of the lexicon of accepted outcomes. Beginning with interactive works such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ 1991 installation, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), in which the viewer is invited to take a piece of the work (wrapped hard candy) with them, interactive work has increasingly become an accepted art making strategy. This was further evidenced in 2008 when the Whitney Museum of American Art chose Neighborhood Public Radio for inclusion in its iconic Biennial. Neighborhood Public Radio is an independent, artist-run radio project committed to providing an alternative media platform for artists, activists, musicians, and community members. In essence it is a community project, produced by artists. The inclusion of an underground community-centric radio station in America’s most prestigious art exhibition was a signal that an activist/ interactive studio practice has entered the mainstream.
Charting Altruism and Activism in a Project Based Practice
In this new activist and interactive genre there are distinctions that can be made based on the intended impact of the activity. Though these distinctions are arbitrary and often do not capture the unique system that each project employs, I use them in order to help draw attention to the breadth and meaning of interactive projects. These distinctions are: contributions to an individual’s or a community’s self-reliance, activities intended to educate participants, activities with philanthropic goals, and activities intended to benefit local, regional, national, and international community development. I have selected one or two examples of each practice, in each of the four categories of self-reliance, education, philanthropy and community engagement to serve as case studies for the practice of altruistic projects in a studio craft practice. These categories are not mutually exclusive, and it is often the case that artists or makers engaging in them combine these goals. In general activities with these non-market driven goals seek to create cultural experiences, which I believe to be the underlying goal of art production in general.
In 1997 Annette Rose-Shapiro of Urban Glass in Brooklyn, New York, founded the Bead Project. The Bead Project is a program designed for economically disadvantaged women interested in learning a new creative skill they can use to supplement their income. By teaching women, mostly single mothers, glass bead making and silver jewelry making techniques they are able to work from home. In addition to these skills, the program also offers business classes through a partnership with Brooklyn based non-profit CAMBA. After the successful completion of The Bead Project curriculum, students receive their own torch and tool kit for use at home. The Bead Project has helped nearly 200 women toward greater financial stability.
This project is an excellent example of how craft skills can be used as a tool for empowerment and self-reliance. While this project is more of a social action project than an art project, craft provides the foundation for its feasibility and execution. It also highlights the historic connection between craft practices and social welfare. In fact this same model, of teaching craft skills to depressed demographics and providing an institutional mechanism for dissemination, was used by Helen R. Albee to establish the Abnekee Rug Industry in rural New Hampshire at the turn of the 20th century. In her Book Art and Labor: Ruskin, Morris and the Craftsman Ideal in America, Eileen Boris devotes an entire chapter to this type of practice entitled, Women's Culture as Art and Philanthropy. Highly recommended, if somewhat dry reading.
Another project that facilitates self-reliance (and also education) is Ethical Metalsmiths Radical Jewelry Makeover (RJM). This project takes a much different approach than the Bead Project and instead of using craft skills to promote self reliance, it takes participants existing skills and attempts to help them cultivate a more sustainable way of working. The interactive project is sponsored by Ethical Metalsmiths, an organization formed for the purpose of stimulating demand for responsibly sourced materials as an investment in the future [of metalsmithing and of the earth]. The project is essentially a workshop in which participants recycle components from unwanted jewelry donated to become new and hopefully more exciting work. The work is then sold with proceeds going to support Ethical Metalsmiths programming. The project involves education sessions about metal mining, demonstrations, and tips and resources on how participants can reform their own studio practice in order to make it more environmentally friendly. The combination of practical and theoretical knowledge allows participants to become aware of the environmental concerns of their vocation, and to be equipped to address them. The ultimate goal of the project is to catalyze change in the practices of a dirty field. The project allows for participants to go away with the tools to reform their own practice and thus be able to maintain a more ethical practice themselves. Throughout the workshops the main imperative is the sourcing and recycling of existing materials, rather than the procurement of newly produced raw materials. RJM seeks to offer jewelers a way to avoid sourcing materials from an industry that is not consistent with eco-minded 21st century values. RJM offers a practical model for the studio jeweler and studio jewelry in general to become less dependent on material whose production is socially and ecologically devastating. In RJM self-reliance becomes synonymous with self-sustaining.
The tag line of the website for Future Farmers reads, “Cultivating Consciousness since 1995.” Future Farmers is not a rival to 4-H, instead it is an arts and design collaborative engaged in socially conscious projects intended to benefit communities and society. Most of their projects begin with craft skills, but balloon in meaning to transcend the practice of object making. For example their 2008 project The Reverse Ark:
“was a temporary space of production and learning. An inventory of limited resources inhabited the gallery. These recycled materials were used during a four-day residency to build The Reverse Ark. The gallery became a living laboratory for learning, inquiry and improvisation including mini-workshops, lectures, video screenings and frameworks for reflection. Invited guests included an environmental scientist, the Los Angeles Mayor's Office, the Department of Water, a priest, and a computer scientist.”
The diversity of the presentations and activities that took place within the ark speak to the ability of the Future Farmers to transpose their agenda onto that of the art museum they utilized. This type of project co-opts the museum into including dynamic educational programming in their offerings. Therefore it helps to reinvent both the function of art and of the museum by combining education with art practice. The Reverse Ark was merely a framework for engaging participants on issues related to climate change and the history of water use. While the use of discarded materials to create the work was rooted in an object making practice, the activities and meaning of the object(s) itself had a clear educational motivation. The physical works themselves appear of very little aesthetic value, and to the visitor at the Pasadena City College gallery, the work would not be easily decipherable in terms of organization, content, or even visual stimulation. What I am forced to conclude then, was that the ark was a series of activities and information sessions – which proceed from the metaphorical concept of building an ark – that utilized craft skills in part, but ultimately was designed to give participants problem solving experience with water consumption issues in a place where water consumption is a serious threat to regional security and stability.
Community Engagement Projects
A great example of an activist studio practice can be found in the work of glass artist Keith Mendak. In his 2008 work, Project Hope, Mendak created a mobile altar replete with votive candles and glass silhouettes of then presidential candidate Barack Obama. On election day Mendak took the altar to bustling downtown corridor in Richmond, Virginia, where he was likely to find people with felony criminal records. Here it should be added that currently Virginia is only one of two states in which persons convicted of a felony do not have their voting rights restored once their incarceration is over.
Mendak proceeded to invite passers-by to light a candle for hope. The candles featured the face of Barack Obama transposed over the original graphic of either Jesus Christ or a saint. This symbolic gesture of inclusion is a good example of how using craft skills to create an object, system, or activity aimed at political commentary can be more powerful than object making alone, primarily because of the meaning created through interpersonal interaction.
The Empty Bowls Project was started in 1990 by a Michigan high school art teacher to raise funds in support of a food drive. Since then the project has expanded dramatically. On the most basic level it offers patrons a craft object in exchange for making a monetary contribution to hunger relief. The project works like this: craftspeople make ceramic bowls, then advertise and invite the public to a soup dinner. Guests at the dinner select a bowl and pay the suggested donation (usually $10.00) and get to keep the bowl. The money then goes to a hunger relief organization. The obvious thematic connection between the bowl as a vessel that contains food is exploited in this simple project. The image conjured by the title of the project is a reminder of the goal of the project. Simple and effective, this project is not proprietary and has been replicated thousands of times.
Another project along these lines is CO2 Pins: Jewelry for Our Climate. In 2006 jeweler Stefanie Rahmstorf and her physicist husband Stefan Rahmstorf, (also a member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change and of the Academia Europaea) began the making jewelry to fight climate change. Similar to the Empty Bowls project, CO2 Pins: Jewelry for Our Climate is a project whose proceeds participate in philanthropy, but in an indirect and quasi-ethically driven way. Europe employs a cap and trade system on CO2 emissions, which means companies have to buy the right to emit the gas. Each emission credit is equal to one ton of CO2. Within this system environmentalists (such as the Compensators, who the Rahmstorfs work with) have discovered that they can purchase emission credits which prevent actual emissions from occurring. The CO2 Pins work on this premise. The Rahmstorfs make CO2 themed jewelry and sell it for around € 110. Once a piece is sold, the Rahmstorfs use the money to purchase a one ton emission credit. The jewelry is then stamped with the serial number of the emission credit, as a record or badge of the meaning and function of the object. The Rahmstorfs have created a system in which jewelry has become the means to create a tangible contribution to all the inhabitants of the planet. Think about that the next time you sit down at the bench.
There is really not a whole lot to conclude about this other than the premise that craft exists within a continuum of social concern. Today there are people and groups perpetuating the legacy of craft's socially concious and activist roots. I hope for some I have shown you a few cool projects, but for others I hope that these examples stir something within you. Something that I strive for in my life, and something that has been the driving force behind my work and my writing over the past year is finding a way to make the world a better place. The world has enough shit in it (even enough beautiful shit). What is our legacy to humanity, not just decorative arts history?